Archive for March, 2009

Exact Equality Redux

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Exact Equality Redux

I first wrote this essay a few months before the election of Obama. I posted it on my blog and had several responses, some angry, some supportive, and one that suggested I preface the piece, as I am now doing, with the disclaimer that this musing is intended to ignite your thinking about gender equality and our current socio-economic reality without making any claim to certainty about any of the ideas contained herein. You may call that a cop out, but if reading this piece inspires you to ponder the possibility of a connection between the feminist movement and the more recent (last forty years) machinations of the vile male oligarchy that currently rules our nation and much of the world, I will feel justified in sharing my epiphany. 

I recently came upon this quote from Mark Twain. “No civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.”

Not his most erudite aphorism, but certainly thought provoking. Many feminists consider Twain to be a prototypical American misogynist, yet Twain called his novel Joan of Arc his most important work; a novel he was compelled to self-publish at the height of his fame because no publisher would touch it. What were the publishers afraid of? Or to put the question another way, what did the ruling elite find so threatening about Twain’s account of Joan of Arc?

The novel depicts France in economic ruins at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the nation ruled by a horribly corrupt Church and monarchy (essentially one and the same bureaucracy) with much of the country occupied by foreign troops and brigands. There is seemingly no hope for France’s salvation until a young woman rises from the lowest ranks of society to set the nation free.

To write this book, Twain learned to speak and read French, spent years studying the life of Joan of Arc, pored over the historic records of her time, and went to France to retrace the steps of Joan’s life and study the original transcripts of Joan’s heresy trial that led to her being burned at the stake. In his novel, Twain depicts Joan as intuitively brilliant, mysteriously strong, and endlessly resourceful. He suggests that Joan’s phenomenal strength and wisdom derive from a deep and loving connection to the earth and through direct communications with God. Twain’s Joan has no interest in personal success or proving herself the physical equal of men. She is pragmatic, honest, and wholly intent on making life better for all her countrymen.

At the heart of Twain’s quotation is the expression exact equality. I find his inclusion of the adjective exact to be the most original part of his proclamation, though a hundred years ago in America the entire remark would have been revolutionary.

The feminist movement that gathered momentum and grew large in the 1960’s and 70’s addressed social, economic, and sexual inequalities, with exact equality an ideal to be strived for, though certainly never realized. As far as I am aware, the feminist movement paid little attention to spiritual equality, and this, I think, proved to be a disastrous oversight—not that there was ever a comprehensive plan guiding the movement. When I speak of spiritual equality, I am not referring to women struggling to gain the right to become ministers and rabbis and priests in the various patriarchal religious systems, but to an active recognition of the common humanity of men and women transcendent of gender.

Today, fifty years after the feminist movement burst into the mainstream, the corporate media—which I view as our contemporary version of the omnipresent Church of Joan’s time—is more pervasive and dominant than ever and uses every means imaginable to control our bodies, psyches, and spirits, while the American economy is largely in ruins and our nation is now ruled by a totally corrupt oligarchy of wealthy crooks. And I wonder if there could possibly be a connection between the feminist movement and the subsequent ruination of our society by the male overlords, if you will permit me to give those shadowy villains a medieval moniker. I wonder why, with all the fabulous momentum of the gay, feminist, and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, has equality between men and women, let alone exact equality, eluded us, and is, by many measures, rapidly regressing to the inequality that defined our society barely two generations ago? Could this moral decline be intrinsically related to the feminist movement and the backlash (see Susan Faludi) sparked among the corporate elite and reflected in the machinations of our government and media? I think so, and I think Twain’s Joan of Arc, in a roundabout way, posits a credible explanation for why, at least in part, this may be so.

Disclaimer: I grew up with two brilliant older sisters, a brilliant mother, and a not-so-brilliant but oppressive know-it-all father. I knew from an early age that women were easily the equal of men in every way except in terms of brute strength, and I saw how the creativity and intelligence and sensitivity of women was a threat to the supremacy of men who were in no way equal to such women. That is to say, my family reflected the greater reality of our male-dominated society. I identified more with my mother and sisters than with vader, thus I grew up a champion of women despite the societal stigma against such championing.

Addendum to disclaimer: My novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, is full of powerful female characters. The publisher, Bantam, one of the large corporate agencies of cultural control, was aghast at the strength and independence of my female characters and asked that I tone them down to make them “more acceptable to the reading public.”

Bantam or any of the current corporate publishers wouldn’t know what to do with Twain’s Joan of Arc, for she is so incredibly strong that by today’s standards she is a super hero, with one notable exception: her feats were real and historically undeniable. I note that Twain’s Joan is not called by God to liberate women, but to liberate all those suffering under the yoke of cultural and spiritual oppression. Modern feminism, while justifiably excoriating the patriarchal systems underpinned by the world’s major religions, unfortunately made villains of men in general and thereby alienated a vast army of potential male allies. Millions of men who loved women, truly loved women as people and women, were so often characterized as sexist pigs, agents of the patriarchy, and much worse, that they either turned against their accusers or became indifferent to women’s liberation. And the real enemies of women (those dastardly overlords) gleefully capitalized on this painful schism and used it, I believe, to hold our society back from an equality of the sexes that would have ushered in a new age of social dynamism and egalitarianism. Women striving for equality were, in essence, characterized by the popular media as men haters, which characterizations resounded in the collective unconscious.

Twain’s Joan of Arc did not misplace her enmity. She recognized and connected with the souls of all people, men and women, and was thus able to rouse a depressed and severely wounded population to oust the foreign occupiers. Indeed, so formidable was Joan’s power and influence, so threatening was she to the corrupt status quo, that very shortly after her miraculous military victories, the Church moved swiftly to convict her of witchcraft, sorcery, and alliance with Satan. How else to explain the miraculous successes of a mere woman?

My favorite part of Twain’s novel is the trial of Joan of Arc, wherein despite terrible privation and unspeakable cruelty at the hands of her captors, Joan daily repulsed the verbal and intellectual attacks of the most brilliant minds the church could muster against her. Joan’s triumph is recorded for all time in the transcripts of her trial. Unable to surpass Joan’s astonishing and inexplicable grasp of the most esoteric aspects of religious law, her enemies resorted to starving her, torturing her, and forcing her to sign a false confession so they could at last burn her at the stake. She was nineteen when the Catholic hierarchy killed her and shortly thereafter canonized her.

Some fifteen years ago, a wise woman said to me, “So now we’ve got women’s retreats and men’s retreats, everybody getting in touch with their inner woman and their inner man, which is all well and good, but the real revolution comes when men and women unite their spirits to experience our larger purpose here. As long as we define ourselves first as men or women, and only secondarily as human beings, we are too easily divided and conquered.”

John Trudell, the potent American Indian thinker, frequently invokes this same idea. Unless we think of ourselves first and foremost as human beings, and men and women and black and white and Indian and European second, the overlords will use these divisive self-perceptions to keep us from uniting. We are all earthlings, not Americans or Germans or Iranians or Africans, but human.

Exact equality between man and woman may seem an impossible idea. Men and women cannot be exactly physically equal. Indeed, the latest research strongly indicates that men and women have very different operating systems installed in our cranial computers, so to speak. I make the assumption Twain was speaking of spiritual equality, and exact equality means that we all have exactly the same value; each of us is priceless. Until we reshape our social institutions and our personal behavior to support this very reasonable concept of exact equality, our civilization will never approach perfection. In spiritual union, I and Thou become We. Inseparable. Exactly equal. 

 

Todd’s novel Under the Table Books will be published on May 18.